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Community organizing group sets affordable housing, infrastructure as priorities

by ADRIAN KNOWLER, Daily Inter Lake
| May 3, 2023 1:00 AM

A group of over 50 Flathead County residents formed campaign committees working on issues related to affordable housing, mental health and infrastructure at a community meeting led by organizing project United Today, Stronger Tomorrow at its April 6 meeting.

Set up by Leanette Galaz, United Today’s Montana chapter organizer, and hosted by Samaritan House, the group discussed the challenges facing the county and visions for a path forward.

The session started with several attendees sharing their stories and speaking about issues that affect their lives, according to Galaz.

Meta Barnes talked about having subsidized, affordable housing as she worked as a teacher while raising her son and finally buying a house, but those subsidies are long gone and she is struggling to afford her mortgage.

Jennifer Christine Lofton spoke about her family’s struggle to find and afford housing after a house fire, and in her work, the extreme difficulty getting access to mental health care for her clients.

Shannon Clay shared her struggles finding and affording housing, bouncing from job to job trying to make ends meet.

Clay said she’d like to see a tax on properties owned by people who don’t live in the county year round.

“I think there should be taxation on second homes, if you don’t live in the county or if you own multiple properties you should be paying for that,” she said in an interview after the event. “You’re taking away space that individuals can live in and build a community.”

She’s also interested in seeing scheduled bus service around the county, which she said would help with commuting and protect the environment.

“I'm surprised that there aren’t buses going between the cities on a regular basis,” she said.

Galaz then jotted the issues down on a poster and had participants vote on those most important to them.

Galaz asked the attendees to envision what their perfect world in the Flathead Valley would look like.

“Each table discussed their vision of a perfect future, where all of the problems we had discussed were solved,” wrote Galaz in an email. “We summed up the results in three themes: self-sufficiency; caring for each other; and healthy, enjoyable, safe communities.”

Finally, participants signed up to join committees tasked with researching and developing campaigns dedicated to their respective policy issues.

United Today, Stronger Tomorrow is a national group that started its Montana chapter in November 2022, said Galaz.

She said she’s had over 100 phone calls with valley residents in that time, trying to figure out the issues that matter the most.

“Our goal right now in the Flathead is to build out a base of interested, motivated community members,” she said.

Galaz thinks that organized and sustained pressure on local officials can yield results.

“There can be a disconnect between public officials and what the public wants,” she said. “There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the state of things. How can individuals come together to lobby local governments?”

The national organization’s creator pointed to past initiatives in which local chapters had successfully lobbied local governments to use American Rescue Plan funds.

“In western Iowa, we helped to fund five new clean water projects and direct $1 million for rural programs, in Colorado, we helped secure millions of dollars in affordable housing, translation services for Spanish speaking community members and in Salt Lake County, we helped direct $5 million for job training, workforce development and apprenticeship programs for young people,” wrote Paul Getsos, United Today, Stronger Tomorrow’s founder, in an email.

Galaz said the organization mostly focused on lobbying local governments to make use of available American Rescue Plan grant funds for projects such as clean water infrastructure improvement.

Galaz said the group is only getting started.

“We're not interested in running campaigns just to ruffle feathers or make noise, we want to win and make a difference,” she said.